Race and Slavery

Race and Slavery
Photo : Ravi Dev

ROAR of Ravi Dev

Some would dismiss the ubiquity of race and racism but these constructs, arising out of a European 18th century discourse that ran parallel with the European conquest of the rest of the world and especially with the justification of African slavery, but these are still omnipresent.

As we wrote last week, “race and racism", are part and parcel of the "Western Enlightenment," imposed as one weapon in the European arsenal of imperialistic conquest even as it spoke loftily of “freedom and equality and democracy.” Notable names such as Hume, Kant and Hegel were involved in the project on race, which gave a social significance to physical markers. And if the world, including Guyana wants to resolve the “race” problem, it will have to confront these roots that still undergird our worldview.

The institution of slavery was the apotheosis of “unfreedom”. In the words of Orlando Patterson, “The social construction of freedom was made possible by the relation of slavery. Slavery had to exist before people could even conceive of the idea of freedom as a value, that is to say, find it meaningful and useful, an ideal to be striven for…Slavery immediately made possible something that had never existed before: the absolute, unprotected, unmediated power of life and death of one person over another.” 

Thus, in our concrete circumstances in Guyana, we cannot talk about politics leading to “freedom and equality” unless we are willing to extricate those terms from a world view that defines certain individuals as the very essence of the antithesis of those terms. Some easily gloss over our political impasse on account of our “polarisations”. They miss the nature of Guyanese politics - primarily because they take an ahistorical and static gaze at the problematic of “polarisation”. Polarisations, we would know, effect as well as affect. What is the nature of the cleavage that has divided us? What was the discourse that inscribed it in our psyches and practices?

               The “old politics” that has proven so disastrous to us arose out of the famous PPP split of 1955 and the subsequent insistence of its two factions that they each transcended the “polarisations” of the society. They knew it was a lie. We knew it was a lie. But we all went along. When the PNC is in power, Indians by and large do not confer legitimacy on them and the same holds true for the PPP and Africans. But we all go along, skipping blithely down the path of perdition singing “One Nation, One People, One Destiny”. We were supposed to ignore the performative contradictions of that ditty even as our Ethnic Security Dilemmas played out to their tragic dénouement. 

The fatal flaw of Guyanese politics are the (at best paternalistic and at worse, racist) politicians, who insisted they know better than the people they would “only use” race as an expedient to obtain power, but that once ensconced in office, they would govern on everyone’s behalf. They ignore that ends are nothing but consummated means. The Europeans had ruled for centuries on the liberal premise that we natives had to be “tutored” since we hadn’t quite reached the requisite enlightenment standard of reason. Our early politicians, drinking deep from the dogmas of Marxism-Leninism (which shared the Enlightenment premise of “progress” through standards of “rationality”), insisted that the problematic of race/ethnicity was a backward one. What was the socialist content of ‘race”? slyly queried the “conciliatory” Mr. Burnham, to the “conciliatory” Dr. Jagan as late as 1977. The people, however, knew that race/ethnicity was real – their quotidian experience, starting from their insertion into Guyana demonstrated that while unity and brotherhood may be shouted from the pulpits, power was always in the hands of a particular race/ethnic group. They had to deal with that and that was real. The “ethnic enclaves” are bounded by the inequitable reverberations of race and power.

                The damage of two hundred years of slavery is not the same as the seventy of indentureship and neither will be erased by merely “strik(ing) a conciliatory tone”. The damage does not only project outwards. The question of identity is not an insignificant one: indeed I believe it is the paramount one in the post-colonial world. Maybe the debilitating racist, hegemonic structures inscribed inside our heads may ultimately be a simulacrum but, “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

 Jumping off the world is not an option if the force of gravity still governs all matter.